McDonald works on cutting a project in Paperstone, while Hugh Simon, foreman, and Eddie Desilvestro, finisher/installer (inset), sand a 40-percent recycled Avonite countertop that was installed in Palm Beach, Fla.
Gene’s Green shop began with marketing his Web site on the side of his truck.
The shop works with a number of safe, recycled and sustainable materials like the recycled Avonite line being installed here.
The completed job is in Palm Beach, Fla.
Top left: The shop can utilize scrap materials, such as in this inlay, to accompany finished
Top right: The shop installed Enviroglas in the “Greenest Home in Florida.”
Bottom left: McDonald gets creative with coffee bean and bamboo inlayed into Paperstone, one of the shop’s popular products.
Bottom right: The shop has begun experimenting with materials, such as in this vanity created with Paperstone and Enviroglas.
In this inlay, McDonald reuses the customer’s own grout and glass to refresh the countertop.
In today’s market, everyone is constantly searching for a niche — a way to offer something new and unique and break through the barriers of a slow economy. For Gene McDonald, owner of Refresh Interiors Inc., Pinellas Park, Fla., the situation is no different . . . it's just greener.
Although he had been introduced to solid surface and had some positive experiences with it a few years earlier, before 2006 McDonald was working largely in laminate, and left in March of that year to open his own "refreshing" company, hoping to make a living from resanding and repairing the numerous solid surface countertops that were purchased in the ’80s and ’90s. Instead of landing the number of repair jobs he had hoped for, McDonald found that his value as an installer was just as great, getting hired for installations, as well as to do the occasional fabricating in other shops.
“At the time, I worked out of a storage shed,” explained McDonald. "I just pulled up in the morning, loaded my tools and away I would go."
That October, McDonald split a 600-sq.-ft. shop with a woodworker. With one bench and a few tools hanging on the wall, he did one countertop job and quickly realized he would need a bigger shop. The following month, McDonald moved into a 900-sq.-ft. shop and was making quite a few specialty items, such as podiums, condo kitchens, etc., and with bigger projects he once again felt the pressure to move in order to continue growing his business.
“In May of 2007 I moved into the 2,000-sq.-ft. shop I’m in now,” said McDonald. “When I moved in I thought I would never need to move again. I cannot believe it — but I will need to move again soon! Between my new tools and the size of the jobs I am now getting in the Green market, I will have to.”
McDonald attributes much of the shop’s growth to his move into Green building. At the 2006 Surface Fabrication and Design Expo held in Las Vegas, McDonald noticed Green ideas on the show’s agenda and became interested in the marketability of the products. “I noticed Avonite Surfaces had a recycled line; then I started investigating what the third-party certification on the product meant,” said McDonald. “Then I read another piece of literature — “Avonite and LEED.” I started wondering about this Green buzz and thought, ‘Hey. Here’s another niche. Maybe I could offer this Green countertop material.’”
After learning about some new building ideas, McDonald got a sign for his truck promoting his new Web site, gotgreencountertops.com, which he uses not just for his shop, but also as an educational tool for others in the Green building industry. He started marketing in his new-found niche in January 2007 and before long landed his first Green job.
“I thought everyone had heard of Green,” said McDonald. “People would tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Gene, do you make any other color countertops,’ not knowing what Green is.”
WHAT IS GREEN?
Green isn’t always an easy concept to grasp, but is most commonly associated with various environmentalist movements and promotes sustainability, meaning “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It is also related to recycling and reusing, as well as reducing the global impact on the environment in terms of excess carbon and energy uses.
Uneasiness about the state of the Earth’s environment can be seen as far back as ancient Rome and ancient China, when social commentators complained about air, water and noise pollution; however, organized environmentalism, and what is often interchanged with the Green movement today, began in late 19th century Europe and the United States as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, which gave rise to modern environmental pollution through large factories and mass consumptions of coal and other fossil fuels.
“It’s hard to define Green for me,” said McDonald. “Saving the environment and the economy. It’s not just selling tons of recycled product, but also making money from it. I think it’s OK to be an environmentalist and a capitalist at the same time. If we can’t make money off of it, the movement is going to die. People will stop doing it. I think that’s why Green is here to stay.”
While McDonald doesn’t believe Green is all about the product, he certainly has his bases covered, offering more than a dozen recycled and sustainable product lines from quartz surfacing and solid surface to laminates and other up-and-coming surfaces including: Avonite Recycled Collection, EnviroGLAS, Vetrazzo, IceStone, Paperstone, EcoTop, shetkaSTONE, Richlite, Bamboo Butcher Block, Alkemi, CaesarStone and other Greenguard certified quartz, 3form, LG HI-MACS Eden collection and Laminart’s banana and hemp fiber laminate collections.
His business is approximately 85 percent residential and 15 percent commercial, with an average of five projects in his shop at one time. Of the current materials offered, Avonite’s Recycled Collection makes up about 50 percent of the business, with Paperstone and EnviroGLAS bringing 20 and 10 percent of the sales respectively. The remaining 20 percent is a combination of the other lines.
“Now, my contracted work for the coming year is going to put Paperstone, EnviroGLAS, Vetrazzo, Plyboo and Avonite Recycled Collection in all equal percentages,” said McDonald. “I look forward to watching the race of which Green material will be the best in this area because to me it’s all Green and it’s all sustainable in my business.”
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
In addition to offering these third-party certified product lines (McDonald is a big fan of Green and its practice of 100 percent honest disclosure), Refresh Interiors has adopted Green practices inside and outside of the shop.
After bringing on the recycled Avonite, McDonald realized that just offering a recycled product wasn’t going to be enough.
“I started offering and promoting Avonite recycled collections first, because I didn’t have to change my tools and I didn’t have a lot of money,” explained McDonald. “It was still solid surface and I was still doing some practices that I now know were questionable. I was using regular MDF underneath the solid surface as substrate. I learned quickly, that’s like going backward, so I ripped it off. They have recycled decking material at most Home Depots that is also mildew- and water-resistant made from recycled grocery bags, and I use that as my substrate now. Green products have to be better products. If a recycled countertop falls apart or off-gases deadly toxins into the home and are not sustainable, then to me they shouldn’t be used as green whether they are recycled or not. Sustainability is what we are after.”
In addition to being conscious of substrates, McDonald suggests using low- or no-VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) materials in the shop, recycling the water used to cut quartz surfacing with a water reclamation system or using dust collection tools, like Festool’s line of equipment, of which McDonald has acquired two sets — one for in the shop and one for use outside of the shop during installations.
Refresh Interiors doesn’t have large CNC machines and uses hand tools for the majority of its fabrication, but for custom signs and other designs with scrap materials, McDonald will send it out to someone with a CNC, supporting other local shops. The shop can also turn a profit on old removed tops, refabricating those into vanities for resale at a lower price. The shop can sell as many as four or more scrap vanities a month.
McDonald stresses that fabricators don’t have to carry all of the product lines or buy all the latest Green gadgets to do their part. Helping out can be as simple as saving and inventorying scrap materials to produce windowsills, shelves and other scrap projects to divert waste from landfills. “Most of us, as fabricators, already give our customers the cutting board sink cutout,” said McDonald. “Ordering just what you need and laying your projects out properly can also divert that scrap material and saves you money in the process.”
Not sure all of that can be done? McDonald also emphasizes the impact of simply having a recycling system set up in your shop for cans and plastic. That’s something and something is always better than nothing.
“Having a filing cabinet that actually has files in it, not just everything thrown in it, is also important,” said McDonald. “When someone wants to know the MSDS (material safety data sheets) on Paperstone, I need to be able to go into my file and pull it out. If they want Avonite, I have all of that documented and filed, too. That’s just a simple Green practice.
“To get 100 people to change 5 percent is easier and better for the movement than one person trying to go 100 percent Green with an all-or-nothing attitude,” continued McDonald. “I’m just trying to get better today than I was yesterday. If someone just wants to be a little 2 percent Green, then I would say to them, ‘Welcome to the world of Green. How are you?’ That’s what I’m going for. I don’t want to fight. I don’t want to be a Green detective or the Green police. I want to do the right thing and I know this is the right thing.”